As It Happens

Big fashion brands join B.C. group's efforts to halt destruction of endangered forests

Major clothing brands like Timberland, Vans and The North Face say they will no longer make products derived from ancient, endangered forests — and it's all thanks to the advocacy of a B.C. environmental group.
A photographer stands at the base of an ancient tree in Central Walbran Valley, B.C., in this undated photo. U.S. apparel conglomerate VF Corporation has vowed not to use ancient or endangered trees in the making of its products. (HO-Ancient Forest Alliance via Canadian Press)

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Major clothing brands like Timberland, Vans, Nautica and The North Face say they will no longer make products derived from ancient, endangered forests.

VF Corporation — which owns more than 30 apparel brands including Wrangler jeans, Vans footwear and JanSport backpacks — announced Monday it will no longer buy pulp from "sources that contribute to the loss of ancient and endangered forests or rights taken from Indigenous people and local communities."

120 million trees every year disappear into the clothing that we all wear- Nicole  Rycroft , Canopy

Nicole Rycroft, director of Vancouver-based environmental group Canopy, which partnered with VF on the initiative, called it "a major breakthrough for environmental conservation around the world."​

"When America's largest apparel conglomerate commits to eliminating the use of endangered forest fibre or socially controversial fibre from their clothing and their packaging and their paper, it really does provide a lift to global conservation and climate action efforts," Rycroft told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

The company that owns Timberland products has promised to make its rayon production more forest friendly. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

Trees in your clothes?

The paper and packaging part of that pledge may not come as a surprise to consumers. But how exactly do jeans, boots and backpacks contribute to deforestation?

It all centres around rayon —  a synthetic cellulose fibre used as a cheap replacement for silk. It's commonly found in apparel from many of the world's most popular clothing brands.

"It's not an intuitive link that that thing that you can get a splinter from can actually be that nice soft, silky fabric that's next to your skin," Rycroft said.

A section of Quebec's boreal forest is seen after being clear cut in this undated photo. VF Corporation has vowed not to use wood pulp from ancient or endangered forests, including those in Canada. (Matt Medler/International Boreal Conservation Campaign via Associated Press)

Rayon is derived from tree pulp that goes through a chemical process that wastes 65 per cent of the tree, according to Canopy, which first discovered the link five years ago.

Reycroft says that, according to Canopy's research, "120 million trees every year disappear into the clothing that we all wear."

"It's not a very efficient process at all. In fact, it's quite wasteful," Rycroft said. 

What's more, Canopy says wood pulp production can involve clearing forests and taking land traditionally used by Indigenous communities.

And many of those trees come from ancient, endangered forests in Indonesia, the Amazon and Canada, including forests on Vancouver Island and heavily logged parts of Canada' boreal forests, Canopy says. 

Canada exported 426,000 tonnes of dissolving pulp valued at $361 million in 2016, Natural Resources Canada told the National Observer.

Industry getting on board 

"To be honest, when we first started reaching out to brands and designers and retailers five years ago, I think many of them were actually surprised at the link as well," Rycroft said.

"And they were definitely surprised to find that such a significant amount of the fibre that was going into their rayon and their viscous fabrics was actually coming from endangered forest ecosystems around the world."

Nautica is one of over 30 brands owned by conglomerate VF Corporation. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

VF Corporation hasn't specifically said which suppliers it will ditch and which it will turn to, but has vowed to use recycled fibre when possible and give preference to products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit standards organization.

Rycroft said VF is following a global trend, and that brands, retailers, high-end designers and even rayon producers have been getting on board with Canopy's efforts to minimize the impacts of rayon. 

"There are some companies that are slow to move on this issue and I think we're starting to get to that critical mass point where the distinctions between the leaders and the laggers on the use of forest and fabrics is starting to become a little bit more distinct," she said.

Canada's boreal forests are impacted by the production of rayon, says B.C. advocacy group Canopy. (Ho-Garth Lenz/Canadian Press)

Canopy projects that if the industry continues to use rayon from endangered forests at its current rate, the environmental impact will double over the next decade.

But it's not too late to stop that acceleration before it starts, she said. 

"We can build a fence at the top of the cliff rather than a hospital at the bottom, which is so often the scenario that we're dealing with with environmental issues," she said. 

"We have the ability during this inflection point in production of steering it in a much more sustainable direction and making sure that new mills aren't built in endangered forest regions and to ensure that community rights are being respected around the world."

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Nicole Rycroft.

With files from Reuters


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